DARRINGTON — On the morning of March 22, Oliver Rankin was out landscaping along the North Fork Stillaguamish River in Oso.
Rankin, 17 and a junior at Darrington High School, said the first sign something was wrong was cellphone calls from friends whose land lines had gone out. Then his father, Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin, called.
“I got a call from my dad telling me I probably couldn’t get back home because there was a mudslide,” Oliver Rankin recalled.
But he didn’t have a good sense of the size of the slide until his father called back, telling him to get away from the river.
In the initial hours after the slide, the blockage of the river led to worry that the river valley would be hit by a catastrophic flash flood.
The flood didn’t come, but as the scale of the disaster up at Steelhead Haven became known, Rankin and other students at the school became involved in the massive volunteer effort that sprung up alongside the rescue and recovery operation.
Another of those students was Taryn Tamez, 16, a sophomore at the school. A typical Saturday at home turned upside down when word reached town of the slide.
Initially, her mother was trying to make sure her oldest son, who worked in Oso, was safe. But once that was done, Tamez, 16, got restless.
“All I could think was ‘I need to do something,’” Tamez, 16, said. “Eventually I told my mom I needed to go to the community center,” where volunteers were gathering.
She became so anxious waiting for her mom, she said she almost started walking.
That first Saturday, Tamez joined the other residents of the town, turning the Darrington Community Center into an emergency shelter, setting up cots and tarps, bringing in food. The Red Cross showed up later that day. So did Oliver Rankin, who drove home through Skagit County and later showed up with his mother and soup.
“We worked at the community center from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. when they kicked us all out so we could get some sleep,” Tamez said.
They were back the next morning at 7:30 a.m., and the next, staying until 10 each night. Now volunteer laborers and work crews were flocking to Darrington to work at the slide site and to open Mountain Loop Highway for a town suddenly cut off from the rest of the county. The students organized an assembly line making sandwiches for the workers.
Tamez estimated making more than 200 sandwiches a day.
“I’m pretty good at making peanut butter and jelly now,” she said.
Those first two weeks Tamez and Rankin worked in the community center, making sandwiches, unloading and organizing donations of food and clothing at the community center, and later at Darrington Middle School when the center ran out of room.
Rankin also turned a pet project envisioned as a fundraiser for other causes into a scholarship fund for students who lost home or family members in the slide.
A woodworker himself (his father runs an independent sawmill), he started with trees that needed removing, cut them into discs and sanded them smooth, then stamped them with an image of Whitehorse Mountain.
He’s selling the handmade coasters for a suggested donation of $10 for a set of four. He’s sold 500 out of an initial run of 2,000 so far.
Both Rankin and Tamez got involved with the community early. Rankin is involved in the Key Club (doing work such as picking up trash along rural roads) and SkillsUSA, a vocational educational program. He built an equipment shed for the Darrington Junior Athletic Association, wrestles and acts in the school’s drama club.
Tamez has been doing volunteer work since middle school, including at North County Family Services, which has become the clearinghouse for direct aid in the aftermath of the mudslide, as well as the Darrington Youth Coalition, playing softball and cheering on the high school squad.
Somewhere in there, the two try to find time for studying. Tamez said her grades are “pretty average.” Rankin said his are “improving.”
Linne Haywood, an English teacher at the school who teaches both in her Leadership class, said both Tamez and Rankin are natural leaders and joiners.
“They’re both the first ones to raise their hands and say ‘I’ll help’,” Haywood said. “They both have a well-developed sense of community.”
And both Tamez and Rankin have watched their community come together after a tragedy, even as they also dealt with the loss.
Classmates of theirs lost their homes and family members. Denver Harris, a student at Darrington Middle School, also died in the slide.
“I knew Denver when he was younger,” Tamez said. “He was a super-sweet kid.”
“It feels kind of like a blur,” Rankin said. “I knew it at the time, but it was really amazing how we as a community came together. Not just our town, but the county and state as well.”
Tamez also marveled at the generosity shown her town, and it only reinforced her desire to make a difference in other people’s lives.
“The more I did it, the more I realized that’s the kind of person I want to be, the kind of person people come to for help,” she said.
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; firstname.lastname@example.org.